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  • Disability Bias in Children's Literature
  • Ellen Rubin (bio) and Emily Strauss Watson (bio)

Our article will address a subject that is somewhat less recognized than others usually discussed in the forum of minority issues in children's literature—namely disability bias. By disability bias, we refer to the attitudes and practices that lead to unequal and unjust portrayals of people with disabilities in children's literature. Some writers and publishers have taken steps to eliminate racial and ethnic stereotypes from children's literature as well as removing the limiting effects of sex role stereotyping. Several have tried to eliminate negative images regarding age and class. Educators have come to realize that these kinds of biases limit the growth and development of children. What for the most part has gone unrecognized is that bias and stereotyping on the basis of disability also limit children's potential, and, therefore, this too needs to be addressed from the perspective of writers and publishers, and through a comprehensive re-evaluation of the language and literary style of children's literature.

In 1977, The Council for Interracial Books for Children published a landmark issue of their Bulletin on "Handicapism." In it, Douglas Biklen and Robert Bogdan presented an analysis of children's literature as it relates to the portrayal of people with disabilities. In this piece, the authors describe 10 common stereotypes associated with the portrayal of people with disabilities. (Note: The eleventh stereotype is one that the current authors have commonly noted but was not included in the Biklen and Bogdan piece.) The stereotypes cited were:

  1. 1. Person with a disability portrayed as pitiable and pathetic. This image is one widely touted and perpetuated by charity drives and telethons. It is also a stereotype that widely exists in classical as well as modern children's literature. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol is such an example.

  2. 2. Person with a disability as the object of violence. Since a "handicapped person" must be incapable of defending his/her own self, we become perfect ploys or victims of crime. Of Mice and Men shows an example of this stereotype.

  3. 3. Person with a disability as sinister and/or evil. This may be the most historically prevalent stereotype ranging from fairy tales with [End Page 60] stooped witches who use canes to hunched-back kings. Captain Hook in Peter Pan is a classic example.

  4. 4. Person with a disability used as "atmosphere." Basically undeveloped as characters, persons with disabilities are often peripheral to the main action, perhaps as a blind musician or amputee beggar. The mentally retarded brother in Betsy Byar's Summer of the Swans serves merely as such a prop.

  5. 5. Person with a disability as "super crip." All too often, in order to be accepted both in children's literature and in real life, people with disabilities are put in positions of being over-achievers. Thus, people with disabilities are thought to be endowed with super powers, ranging from the paraplegic detective, Ironside, to social activist, Helen Keller.

  6. 6. Person with a disability as laughable. Just as there are ethnic jokes, so too have the media and children's literature made frequent use of this ploy as a gimmick to facilitate the plot. For example, the person who is visually impaired becomes the brunt of many jokes and pranks. This is a particularly insensitive portrayal of people with disabilities.

  7. 7. Person with a disability as his/her own—and only—worst enemy. This is the popular portrayal of the self-pitying person with a disability who could "make it" if only he or she would shed a cloak of bitterness. Such portrayals deny the reality of architectural, communicational, and attitudinal barriers which legitimately interfere with the true acceptance. Clara in Heidi is such an example.

  8. 8. Person with a disability as a burden. Burdens imply something to be gotten rid of, hence portraying people with disabilities as burdens in society objectifies, dehumanizes, and negates the values and contributions of people with disabilities. A prime example in this category is Laura in A Glass Menagerie.

  9. 9. Person with a disability as asexual. Simply stated, people with disabilities are very rarely presented in caring or...


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pp. 60-67
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